If there’s one thing you can guarantee about 18th century towers, it is that they will be described using words and phrases that were just as fashionable as the buildings themselves. A tower will always be ‘lofty’ and it will almost certainly ‘command rich and extensive views’. Severndroog Castle was built in 1784 and early descriptions follow this unwritten rule. The panorama today is even richer than it was when the tower was built, with two centuries of London development on show.
The curiously-named tower takes its title from the island fortress of Suvarnadurg, around 80 miles south of Mumbai. In 1755 the stronghold was captured by William James, a Commodore in the service of the East India Company, putting an end to attacks on the company’s trading vessels by the Tulaji Angre and his people. In 1759 James returned to Britain, rich with the booty of his years at sea. Widowed whilst abroad, he now married Anne Goddard, and bought the Park Farm Place estate at Eltham, south of London (but then a parish in Kent). He was given a baronetcy in 1778 but died only a few years later in 1783.
A plaque on the tower records that it was built ‘by the representative of Sir William James.’ This was his wife, Anne, and the tower was initially called ‘Lady James’s Folly’, before becoming known as Severndroog Castle, the anglicised form of Suvarnadurg. The plaque states that it was erected in 1784, immediately after Sir William’s death, although some accounts suggest that work began in his lifetime. The architect was Richard Jupp, surveyor and architect to the East India Company, of which Sir William was a director. Three stories high, with a viewing platform on the roof, the tower was used for banquets and as a museum for the weaponry and trophies he had brought back from his travels.
The tower quickly became a tourist attraction, and only a few years after completion was celebrated in the poem ‘Shooter’s Hill’ by the (then) popular poet Robert Bloomfield:
This far-seen monumental tower
Records th’achievments of the brave,
And Angria’s subjugated power,
Who plundered on the eastern wave.
The estate was sold by Lady James’s descendants in 1812 and then had a succession of owners, many of whom allowed public access. In 1829, with the fashion for folly towers on the wane, it was described as ‘nondescript’ and a few years later faced destruction. In 1847 the Duke of Wellington sanctioned a plan to demolish the tower and in its place construct a ‘grand cemetery and mausoleum’, with 10,000 catacombs for the remains of officers of the British army and navy, as well as those in the service of the East India Company. Happily for Severndroog Castle the scheme was never implemented and in the 1920s the London County Council bought the estate and opened it as a public park.
The LCC opened a popular tea-room on the first floor and charged one penny to climb the tower and take in the view. For a period Severndroog Castle flourished, but as the decades passed there was little investment and the tower started to look a little sorry for itself – a Country Life article in 1984 said that ‘a large question mark now hangs over its future.’ With the demise of the LCC (by now Greater London Council) Severndroog Castle passed into the care of Greenwich Council in 1986, and access was severely limited.
There was hope of salvation in 2004 when the BBC television programme Restoration featured Severndroog, but it didn’t win the vote. Galvanised, the local community pressed on with fundraising, and in 2014 the Severndroog Building Preservation Trust succeeded in reopen ing the folly to the public and offering refreshments and a series of special events. Check the website for opening times of the tower and the cafe https://www.severndroogcastle.org.uk
The Folly Flâneuse thought the plan for a cemetery on Shooters Hill was pretty impressive until she visited the Guildhall Art Gallery, in the City of London, and saw this 1829 design for a Pyramid Mausoleum. It would have housed 5 million bodies in a pyramid 94 stories high. The base would have covered 18.5 acres (that’s almost 11 Wembley football pitches said The Uncouth Companion), and it would have been a mere 18 metres shorter than The Shard. The design is on show in the exhibition Architecture of London until 1 December 2019 https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/visit-the-city/attractions/guildhall-galleries/guildhall-art-gallery/Pages/architecture-of-london.aspx
Big thanks to Twentieth Century Posters for permission to use the poster featuring Severndroog. Explore the wonderful works they have for sale here https://www.twentiethcenturyposters.com